Crowning The Winners of 2012

We dish out awards to the sectors of the business that propelled the industry forward this year

There were many winners in the game industry this year, as some companies posted strong profits and many took advantage of growing new platforms and expanding markets. Being successful by itself, however, was not enough to earn a place on this list; the additional criterion needed was to have a larger impact on the industry. With that in mind, let's examine the Winners for 2012.


It may seem odd to have a business model as a Winner, but there's no denying that this method of getting money for games has taken the gaming industry by storm. The business model actually dates back to the 1990s, when games such as Achaea and Neopets showed it was possible to attract a large audience by giving away the game, generating revenue from the sale of virtual goods rather than the game itself. Later, games like MapleStory inspired the relentless onslaught of free-to-play MMORPGs that conquered China. The West saw free-to-play become a significant force with social games, with Zynga, Playfish and Playdom leading the initial charge.


The business model came into its own on mobile platforms once Apple introduced in-app purchases with iOS 3.0 in October 2009. Since then, free-to-play games have become the majority of the top-grossing apps on iOS, and Android games are following the same path even more rapidly since in-app purchases were introduced in 2011.

This year saw the immense growth of free-to-play games like Riot Games' League of Legends and Wargaming's World of Tanks, which are making profits that Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi calls “filthy money.” (He means that in a good way.) Now free-to-play is nudging its way onto consoles, after effectively conquering social, mobile, and MMO games. Sony is doing well with free-to-play MMOs, and Microsoft is beginning the experiment as well. Will the future of games be entirely free-to-play? Perhaps not, but it seems to be a safe bet that this business model will continue to account for a growing share of the game business. Free-to-play is a clear Winner for this year and beyond


The gaming industry is used to the rapid adoption of new gaming hardware. New consoles can sell millions of units in their first year. The very best-selling consoles, such as the Game Boy or the PlayStation, have sold more than 100 million units (the Wii is getting close to that number; the Xbox 360 and the PS3 are at 70 million units each), and the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation 2 have gotten to the amazing level of 150 million units sold.


The iPad has sold over 100 million units so far, and Android tablets have sold upwards of 40 million to date. Next year, Gartner is projecting sales of 100 million iPads and over 60 million Android tablets. By 2016, Gartner is projecting total tablet sales of nearly 370 million for the year.

Those numbers by themselves would be enough to explain why game publishers are more than a little interested in tablets as a gaming platform. Add to that the fact that games are the number one app category on tablets, where tablet owners spend the majority of their time, and that tablets are beginning to rival the current generation of consoles in graphics and processing power, and you know why publishers are shifting resources into developing tablet games.

Gamers can expect to see games specifically designed for tablets, with a wide variety of genres. Tablets will keep getting more powerful with more features, and the prices will continue to fall. Best of all, new tablet hardware is coming out every year or sooner, far exceeding the 5 to 7 year cycle of console improvement. The tablet (iOS or Android) is clearly one of the Winners in the wars of the next-generation gaming platforms.

Global Gaming

Ten years ago, if you told an executive in the game business that China would be a leading source of game revenue, you most likely would have been laughed at. Today, China has produced several billion-dollar game companies and seems nowhere close to slowing down. This has happened in a country where consoles are illegal, and pirated software discs are regularly sold on street corners for a pittance.


The transformation of China into a significant revenue source for games has come about through several trends interacting - the rise of subscriptions, free-to-play games, virtual goods, and mobile devices. These same forces are at work around the world, and in the last year areas such as Russia, Brazil and the Middle East have emerged as major gaming markets. Many of these countries will likely never see games or consoles sold in retail stores in any significant numbers. Digital distribution on PCs and mobile platforms will be the norm. Local publishers and developers are becoming major players in the global market; look no further than and World of Tanks for an example.

Game publishers and developers are expanding their attention to the entire world, and seeking partnerships or opening satellite offices to take advantage of these new revenue opportunities. Games are now being designed and created with global markets in mind, and the additional revenue from worldwide markets will certainly help many publishers and developers. The gaming market is expanding to cover the globe, and that makes it one of this year's Winners.


If you think that tablets represent a massive target market for gaming as the installed base reaches hundreds of millions of devices, how does a market of over 1 billion devices sound? That's where the smartphone industry is headed, and fast. Once again, games are one of the most popular categories of apps, and the potential is enormous. Rovio has shown how a hit game can reach hundreds of millions of devices, and Supercell is making hundreds of millions of dollars from just two games on smartphones.


Smartphones have democratized the gaming platform, reaching a broad audience that almost always has their gaming platform handy. The graphics power and other capabilities of smartphones continue to increase every year, making ever more impressive games possible. New types of gaming such as augmented reality and location-aware games are made possible by smartphones. The industry has only just begun to find out what smartphones will do to the gaming business.

One thing's already clear, and that's the amount of attention and investment going into mobile gaming. When the most staid of traditional console publishers (we're looking at you, Activision) opens up a division devoted to smartphone and tablet games, you know the business possibilities look bright. Smartphones have clearly been a gaming Winner this year, and the trend will continue.


Long-time gamers have often lamented the fact that the ever-more-hit-driven game publishing business has made sequels to some classic games impossible. Those great adventure games from LucasArts, or the wonderful RPGs from Obsidian, or that great Wasteland RPG? Yeah, nobody would ever make a new game like that... until Kickstarter. Double Fine's successful use of the crowdfunding process to make a new adventure game possible has sparked a flood of developers gleefully ignoring traditional publishers to find a fan base willing to fund a new game in a classic genre.


These new games are focused on the features the gamers (who have backed these projects with their money) are looking for, not the features somebody in marketing thinks might sell. The budgets are a fraction of the size that major games command from big publishers, but by using tools such as Unity developers think they can pull of something fans will love.

There are downsides, of course. The majority of Kickstarter projects don't reach their funding goals, and so the project never gets off the ground. We're still waiting to see exactly how good these games will be, since the process is so new none of these games have been completed yet. And there's already a sense of burnout among fans (and game media) as so many new game Kickstarters are announced. Even with those caveats, it's clear that Kickstarter is an important new way for games to get created, and thus belongs in the Winner's circle.

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Latest comments (11)

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
There are downsides, of course. The majority of Kickstarter projects don't reach their funding goals, and so the project never gets off the ground.

I see this as an upside, rather than a downside. Getting an early indication that the game concept is either not appealing or not well developed enough saves developers a lot of time and money.

One more winner in 2012 that I think was left off the list (though it was implied by several other entries) was non-core gamers. Smartphones and the new pricing have opened up a massive new audience for video games that didn't exist five years ago.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
Can we stop propagating the myth that tablets are close to current gen consoles in processing power and graphics? They are not. The games that LOOK technically impressive on tablets and smartphones are running on a much lower technical level, and take advantage of many artistic tricks to make something that's really closer to a Wii game "look like" an Xbox 360 game.

In general a good article, but it ignored the downsides of the mobile segment, like the fact that more than 50% of app store revenue is taken by only 25 developers, leaving the market impossible to survive on for the vast majority of game developers.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
To further the concerns made by Nicholas, I'm curious why the 3DS was not included as a winner. It has outsold the life to date sales of its predecessor - the DS, which was note din the article for being one of only 2 consoles to ever reach 150 million in sales. And this is despite a higher price, tougher competition from other noted winners and generally tougher market conditions.

Overall, a good article that points out facets that have either bucked the trends, shifted the market focus or totally changed the game (as it were). If I had to pick a single winner, I'd choose Kickstarter.
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Joshua Rose Executive Producer / Lead Designer, Storm Eagle Studios7 years ago
@Jim - the 3DS gave too many people headaches after long periods of playing. I remember looking at it one time and thought to myself, "no thanks. If I want a headache like that, I'll just bang my forehead on the desk for a couple hours"

Free to Play games certainly gained a much better reputation this year in regards to non-social gaming free to play games. (i.e. World of Tanks, Planetside 2, League of Legends). The success or failure of a Free to Play game relies on equal parts math/science. But it's as much an art as it is a science. If you don't have a knack for the model, it doesn't matter how many fancy doodads, snozwangers, and Oompa Loompa's you add to the game; It won't be successful.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
So turn off the 3D. It has that slider there for a reason.
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Joshua Rose Executive Producer / Lead Designer, Storm Eagle Studios7 years ago
Then it's no different than the DS lite.

So why should they get recognition for something that causes headaches on a worldwide scale... and when 3D feature is disabled, is no different than the DS Lite which came out a few years ago?
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Maybe I'm crazy, but the 3DS got off to a slower than expected start, had to have a major price cut and a bunch of appeasement freebies given away before becoming the huge success it is now. Perhaps that had as much to do with it not making the list as the take it or leave it 3D functionality. That said, I actually prefer the 3DS XL over the original model because I can actually see what I'm playing a lot better when I do play something on it. Usually with the 3D off after about an hour at most.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
>> the fact that more than 50% of app store revenue is taken by only 25 developers

This is not the problem it might sound like. As one of the "non 25" I wish it wasn't so, but that doesn't counter the fact that there's still plenty of worthwhile room for others.

Our two main games are now on page 3 of the Android chart and about page 1 million on the iOS chart, but we still gross enough income to run a studio of seven guys, all of whom are experienced pros with salary expectations to match. And with the long tail, things should in theory get even more comfortable as we release more stuff in future. They're fairly niche games too.

You still need to make good stuff, but you don't need a massive smash hit to keep your business running. Not something you can say of the AAA business ime.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Joshua, that's like saying a Gameboy Advance is no different than a GB Color. Is a PS3 no different than a PStwo? Is PS Vita no different than a PSP 3000?

Do you really think it's just a DS Lite with 3D enabled?

As for the price cut and ambassador program, that happened in 2011, not 2012.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
@ Joshua It hardly causes headaches on a worldwide scale. People who have poor vision, a bad prescription (one eye different than the other and they aren't properly corrected), and the 7% of the population of the world whose brain can't see 3D at all or very well are the only ones affected by that.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London7 years ago
@ Joshua Rose

I think you might be over-projecting your own experiences with the 3DS as an overall international experience, which I believe not to be true otherwise we would be reading a lot more about those issues.
In any case, for a console that wasn't doing very well, Nintendo managed to turn the tide with a few offers, pricing and even shifting different colors faster. If anything it's one of the winners due to the fact they took a (big) risk on price drop and worked out for them.
Unlike Sony who is currently with both hands on their head having no idea what to do with their Vita, they need to decide something - anything - asap and not let the Vita marinate (even more) on the failure it was and still is.
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